Runner's share their experiences of how lacing up and moving has helped deal with grief

·18-min read

It’s a sight many of us will be familiar with at races: a runner with a loved one’s name and image on their top, often accompanied by poignant words about a life often ended far too early. These tributes to those no longer here let us know the motivation powering each step of those who are. Maybe that runner has been you.

As racing returns post-Covid, we are likely to see many more people remembering many more loved ones. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2019 there were 530,841 deaths in England and Wales. But owing to the pandemic, that figure rose by more than 78,000 in 2020.

In some ways, the public acknowledgment of such a loss can be heartening. It shows this runner can now mark or – even celebrate – that lost life, be it through running, fundraising or increasing awareness of a cause, or all three. It also shows they are moving forward, however slowly.

In the late 1960s, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the ‘stage theory’ (or Kübler-Ross Model), outlining the typical pattern of how we grieve following a bereavement. It runs as follows: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It should be noted that not everyone experiences all of these stages, or may do so in a different order.

Any of these stages can have a huge impact on our emotional and physical wellbeing, says Dr John Wilson, a visiting research fellow at York St John University and an experienced bereavement counsellor. ‘A typical sequence of grief begins with acute pain and a sense of disbelief, followed by a numb phase, which may last for a few weeks or months,’ says Wilson. ‘This phase can actually be helpful because it means the person is protected from the worst of the emotional pain while they get used to the reality and enormity of their loss.’

Wilson says it can often be during this phase that people turn to exercise for distraction, respite and solace. ‘Running is a great way to distract or occupy our thoughts from the intrusion of grief, but it has more benefits than being just a distraction,’ he says.

He points to extensive research that shows how exercise increases the levels of positive chemicals in our bodies and brains, which can be in short supply when we are feeling low or working through grief. He points to our so-called ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, as well as the body’s natural opioids – endorphins – which help relieve stress and pain.

‘If you get out for a run and hit a time or distance, the reward will be dopamine flooding your brain, while just being outside in the daylight with others will boost your serotonin,’ says Wilson. ‘Oxytocin is the “love drug” and will be released if you run with a

group or a friend, and endorphins will make you feel good if you really push yourself. There’s evidence they work together and increasing one will increase the others too. And running, especially with others, will boost all four and lift your mood.’

Professor Paul Farrand, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, agrees physical activity can help to rebalance our lives. ‘Our life structure consists of three main areas – the routine, pleasurable and necessary activities,’ he says. ‘Bereavement can have a significant impact on all three, and we can find ourselves wanting to do less and less. For example, if you ran before, running might be the first thing to go while dealing with loss. If you’re not careful, you could be trapped in what we describe as a downward spiral.’

Farrand says returning to, or starting an activity such as running can help lift you from this negative mindset, though he notes that, in some cases, it can be used to avoid facing a loss. ‘Those using running as a distraction will not always find it works as a long-term fix,’ he warns. ‘It can be that during these runs, you tend to ruminate on your loss and go over it in your head. This can be negative, as you become stuck in a vicious circle and don’t move forward through bereavement.’

However, Farrand stresses that when exercise is used effectively, it can be as valuable as a grief-counselling support group, particularly when it has a social element. ‘Being in a running group offers social contact and a connection, which can be crucial to re-establish after a loss,’ says Farrand. ‘As well as bringing pleasure, running can be a “safe medium of exchange”. By that I mean you can talk about issues like bereavement with fellow runners as you run, if you want. This differs from going to a counselling group, where you would be expected to discuss that which for some might feel awkward.’

Being active can also provide an additional coping mechanism. A study published in the Journal of Public Health in 2020 looked at how almost 140,000 people dealt with adverse life events, including bereavements. The research found those who exercised more seemed to cope better and recover more quickly after a loss.

Dr Clare Stevinson, a senior lecturer in physical activity and health at Loughborough University, believes exercise could play a key role in coping with grief. ‘Grief for a loss is because there is a hole in someone’s life and exercise can fill that gap,’ she says. ‘Although many other activities can fulfil this purpose, exercise is not passive, with the likes of running requiring considerable effort. It may need your full attention as you are developing mastery – a new skill to become good at – and can restore confidence, which can diminish during the long grieving process.

‘To counteract negative emotional reactions to loss, running can restore feelings of competence – if you begin to run faster or further for example,’ says Stevinson. ‘This can bring back pleasure in your life, something that also may be lacking while mourning.’

Grief is a hard road to navigate and although no one claims running will provide all the answers, it helps many to find a way forward during the most painful periods of their lives. Here, four RW readers share their personal stories of how running helped them after they suffered a loss that left them bereft.

'SOME DAYS, I WOULD BE RUNNING WHILE CRYING AT THE SAME TIME'
ELIZA FLYNN, 39, ISLINGTON, NORTH LONDON.

‘I used to say that I wasn’t really that keen a runner, despite doing the London Marathon nine years ago. But since my mum, Elly, died last year, I have turned to running more.

Mum was diagnosed with dementia in 2012 and it was tough to watch her slowly slip away. After her condition worsened, we moved her into a care home. I like to think she was happy there, despite her mental health continuing to decline. As time passed, I don’t think she knew who I and my sister, Rosie, were, but she knew she liked us.

I saw her on my birthday in early March last year, just before the pandemic struck. Two weeks later, her home was effectively closed for visits. It was extremely tough, as it was for everyone in that situation.

In early April, she developed a slight temperature and in the next few days she stopped eating and, eventually, drinking, too. She was diagnosed with Covid and although Mum had been in fairly good physical shape, her GP told us they didn’t think she’d make it.

Just before she passed, Rosie and I dressed in PPE and were allowed to see her. We chatted, played her favourite music and tried to make it as joyful as we could. We did some video calls with her after that, but I was very aware that my visit would be the last time I would actually be with Mum.

We held a socially distanced funeral, which wasn’t the send-off anyone would have wished for in normal times.

It was during this difficult time that I began running more often. Running was always my massive escape. Now, when I needed some headspace to process everything about Mum – in between being a busy a mum myself, a wife and having my own business – running gave me that bit of freedom.

I often went early, when the sun had just come up and our two boys were still in bed. Some days, I would be running while crying at the same time – my emotions were all over the place. I thought how Mum would have loved being outside in the sun; I knew she would want to stop to look at flowers or feed the ducks.

One morning, I was running past Arsenal’s football stadium when it was warm and sunny, but I was aware mum was in a cold casket awaiting the funeral. It made me incredibly sad, as she hated the cold. But I also knew she wouldn’t want me to be sad and would encourage me to do this run and make the most of everything.

While I was grieving, running was good for both my physical and mental health. It allowed me to refocus and reset my emotions. I found I could run off some of the sadness.

Now I continue to run each week, either on my own or with friends. I also work out with other mums, as I’m a personal trainer. I think because of lockdown I haven’t been able to properly work through all my emotions – I couldn’t even give my sister a proper hug when we both needed it most. Running has helped and now Rosie and I hope to run a 10K together for the Alzheimer’s Society at London’s Kew Gardens in September. I will always think back to those early morning runs after Mum passed and know I was doing it for me, but thinking so much about her.’

Running gave Eliza an opportunity to refocus and manage her emotions in the aftermath of the death of her mother: ‘I knew she would encourage me to do this run and make the most of everything.

‘I FELT I’D DONEIT FOR ANGELA’
CHRIS ROSE, 41, RENDLESHAM, SUFFOLK

‘To mark our 10th wedding anniversary, in 2016, my wife Angela and I ran a 10K race

together. It was only a year after I began running, although Angela had been running for longer, which had got me into the sport. It was my first 10K race and it was lovely crossing the line together – we even have a photo capturing the moment, with big smiles on our faces.

A year later, Angela was diagnosed with breast cancer, which, despite treatment, spread to other parts of her body. It was a huge shock and with our son Jack – who is now aged 10 – it was extremely tough.

In 2018, all three of us went to watch the London Marathon. Although Angela had always said she wanted to run it one day, we knew that was now unlikely. But on that day, while chatting to another running friend, I decided to enter it the following year.

I belong to Run For Your Life, a local online running group that Angela had first joined, and I started my training with them in the autumn before the marathon. I would often question myself about going running while Angela was so ill, especially when our route took us close to the hospice where she was being cared for.

At other times, I felt going for a training run was a good distraction. Many people in our group knew about Angela, so there was always someone who would offer to do a run with me, which was amazing. Even if I wasn’t talking to them about her, I was thinking about Angela during those runs.

In February 2019, only 18 months after her diagnosis and two months before the marathon, Angela passed away at the age of 40. I went on runs around that time, barely holding back my tears.

It was while organising the funeral that I had the idea of running the marathon with Angela’s ashes. I bought a special wristband designed to store a small amount of ashes inside. It seemed right, as Angela had written a letter to Jack saying that she had always wanted to run the marathon, but now I would have to do it instead.

I had completed several shorter races during the build-up, so felt I could get round on what would be a very emotional day.

Along with my wristband, I had some words on my vest about Angela, which led other runners and the crowd to urge me on. Around Tower Bridge, after seeing Jack, my parents and other family members, I did feel very teary but managed to keep it together before crossing the line. I felt that I’d done it for Angela.

Running has been a massive part of getting through the past few years. It was something we both enjoyed and we met some wonderful people doing it. AlthoughI’ve recently had some counselling throughMacmillan Family Support, which has always been there for us, my friends at Run For Your Life have also helped me enormously.

Angela will always be part of my life, but we can’t live in the past and she would want us to look forward. I’m running London again this year, as a way of thanking everyone who has helped us. Two years ago I ran it forAngela, but this time I’m running it for me.’

You can support Team Macmillan by running, volunteering or donating
at londonmarathon.macmillan.org.uk or sponsor Chris at justgiving.com/fundraising/christopher-rosevmlm2020

‘RUNNING HAS BECOME MY SALVATION’
KATE WYNNE, 46, HARINGEY, NORTH LONDON

‘Even now, I don’t quite know why, on that day five years ago, I went out for my first run. But it turned out to be among the best decisions I have ever made.

It came three years after I suffered a missed miscarriage, which is when the baby dies in the womb but the mother doesn’t suffer bleeding or other symptoms. So it came as a huge shock when it was discovered at my routine 12-week scan. It was extremely traumatic because I and my husband Chris had been trying for a baby for a few years. Luckily, six months later I did fall pregnant again. I was worried throughout the pregnancy and underwent many more scans and monitoring before our daughter Beatrix, who is now six, was born.

I hoped our first baby loss was just one of those things, but in total I have had seven miscarriages. Unfortunately, they never knew why they happened; after having Beatrix at 39, it was put down to my age. I underwent IVF because I really wanted another child, but this was unsuccessful and I suffered my last miscarriage in 2017.

Being a twin myself, I felt a terrible guilt that Beatrix would never have a sibling. I mourned that I wouldn’t be able to give her the life I had planned because my body had let us down.

When I took up running after my third miscarriage, I was overwhelmed with grief, loss and self-loathing; I felt I needed to clear some space in my head.

The day I started running, I grabbed an old pair of pink fashion trainers and just went for it. I ended up running two miles near Alexandra Palace, north London, without stopping, which seemed such a long way at the time. I felt amazing afterwards and began running four times a week, which I have done ever since.

The running shifted how I thought about myself. I had been so focused on my body as something that was broken, and what it could not achieve. But running made me feel more in awe of what it could achieve. I also had the headspace to process my grief and realise that even during the most terrible loss and heartache, it was possible to find the good in life. I changed the narrative and started becoming much more grateful for the things I had, rather than thinking about what I didn’t have. I began to appreciate that great feeling you experience when you are running as the sun comes up, or the exhilaration of running in the rain.

I did my first marathon in 2017 and I’ve done many more races since then. I’ve now signed up for my first ultra marathon, which takes place later this year. Running now fits into the rhythm of our family life.

I now use my lost babies as something positive; I feel a better rather than a lesser person because of it. You don’t get over loss, but you learn to live with the emotional scars from it and see the beauty in what is left.

During those hard miles on my runs, I reflect and remind myself why I’m doing this and replay my story in my head. For me, the best thing to have come out of my miscarriages is that it turned me into a runner. It has become my salvation. My life would have been totally different if I hadn’t discovered running as my way of dealing with my loss.’

Kate, who has suffered seven miscarriages, used to view her body as something that was broken.Running has shown her what that body can achieve and has helped her find a way to process her grief. Kate supports the Miscarriage Association. For more information, visit miscarriageassociation.org.uk

‘I STILL REMEMBER HIM ON MANY RUNS’
QUENTIN MACPHERSON, 55, LITTLE CHALFONT,BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

I can remember as clear as day being told that my brother Gavin had been killed. It was only three weeks after we had run the Marlow Half Marathon together, along with our older brother, Neil, and my son, Finn.

Running Marlow was special because we were all scattered across the globe; I was living in the UK, while Gavin was in South Africa and Neil lived in Canada. We only saw each other every few years, but when we did, we began tying it in with entering a race together.

This first happened in 2010, when we met in Cape Town to do the half marathon, which is part of the famous Two Oceans Marathon. All three of us did it in solidarity for Neil’s daughter, Jamie, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. We enjoyed meeting up for the first time in five years and Gavin and I vowed to do the full ultra event – which is 35 miles – two years later. Unfortunately, the week before the race, Gavin pulled his hamstring, so he couldn’t run. I completed it alone, but joked with Gavin he couldn’t get out of it that easily. I said I would return in 2014 and we would do it together.

So in 2014, Gavin and I finally both did run the ultramarathon, which was a great shared experience. We made a pact to do it together again in 2019, the 50th anniversary of the event.

In November 2014, Gavin flew back to England to celebrate our mum’s birthday and while he was here, we did the Marlow Half. But just three weeks later, after returning to Cape Town, he was killed during an evening training run less than half a mile from home. He was hit when a speeding driver lost control and mounted the pavement. Gavin, who was 55, died at the scene. I was just leaving work when my niece rang from South Africa to tell me the awful news, which left me devastated.

We flew out for the funeral and there was later a court case – the driver was convicted of manslaughter.

I have committed to always do Marlow, which has become ‘Gavin’s race’. And my daughter, Tara, agreed to run the Two Oceans in 2019 with me.

While running it, I thought about Gavin a lot, as we had run the same route

together. Some of his ashes had been scattered on the course, so it felt very emotional running that part. But completing it and carrying out our loose commitment did bring some sort of closure to me about his death.

After the race, we had a big family barbecue; we thought and talked of both Gavin and Jamie – who had, sadly, died from her brain tumour the year before – while celebrating their lives.

Seven years on, I still remember him on many runs. Sometimes, I’m on a run and suffering and I might say in my head to him, “Come on, help me out with a bit of energy.”

In our hallway at home I have Gavin’s running number from the Two Oceans and a lovely photo of us crossing the line together. My dad used to say, “May your shadow never grow less” and that resonates with me, as the Marlow Half is a good opportunity for me to remember Gavin and not let the memory fade, while also providing me with a real reason to keep running.’

Quentin fund raises for Woza Moya, a HIV/AIDS charity based in South Africa. wozamoya.org.za/ourstory

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